In 1958, prosecutors say, avowed white supremacist J.B. Stoner boasted to Alabama undercover officers that he masterminded the bombing of a black church in Birmingham.
No one was injured only because a night watchman grabbed the bucket of dynamite planted outside the Bethel Street Baptist Church and ran with it out to the street before it exploded.
Twenty-two years later, Stoner, whom prosecutors describe as a "professional hater and cold-blooded bomber," was convicted of exploding dynamite close to inhabited dwellings and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Today, Stoner, 58, remains a fugitive from justice, a disbarred lawyer hunted by the FBI and bail bondsmen because he failed to appear for a bond-extension hearing last month.
The saga of Stoner, a glaring Dixie anomaly in an era of more subtle prejudice and civil-rights strides, resurrects a dark chapter in the South's history that seems never to come to an absolute close.
Stoner is one of two people convicted for some of the 14 explosions that rocked Birmingham in the turbulent 1950s and 1960s. Three times that number of bombs failed to explode after being planted outside synagogues and black churches.
The most tragic blast ripped through the 16th Street Baptist Church in September, 1963, killing four black girls attending Sunday school. The FBI found a curious fishing bobber at the site and filed it.
Meanwhile, a Ku Klux Klansman, Robert (Dynamite Bob) Chambliss, a city mechanic, told Birmingham police how to construct a crude timing device with such a float.
But those clues were not united until later, when Alabama Lt. Gov. William J. Baxley became state attorney general and launched a crusade to bring bombers to trial and the Justice Department began sharing its evidence with the state.
Local police claim they laid out their case for federal law enforcement officials only to be told it was too scanty. The FBI balked at sharing leads with police forces they said they believed to be infiltrated by Klan spies. So it went . . . .
Much stronger cases than the one against Stoner were ending in acquittals from all-white Alabama juries, said Joe Marston, state assistant attorney general. The Justice Department was reluctant to bring cases they would probably lose.
Still, "The feds were having better luck, so we just boxed up our stuff and sent it to Washington, but the Justice Department didn't prosecute," Marston said. "We don't know why."
Not until 1977 did a Jefferson County grand jury indict Stoner for the Bethel Church bombing and Chambliss for the 16th Street blast. Chambliss was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Three other suspects in the fatal 16th Street bombing, all Klan members, were never pursued for lack of manpower, say officials who worked the case. The file remains open, but the trails are cold. Evidence has been lost; some witnesses are dead.
"We'd have a good shot at getting the others, but it would take a lot of persistence," said one investigator who helped convict Stoner.
For two years, Stoner fought extradition from his red-brick headquarters in Marietta, Ga., where he directed the National States Rights Party, a neo-Nazi, anti-black and anti-Jewish extremist group. The party says its virulent newspaper, The Thunderbolt, has 24,000 subscribers.
After his conviction, Stoner posted a $20,000 bond and appealed. The Alabama Supreme Court ruled against him, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused last month to hear the case.
When he failed to show up for a hearing in Birmingham Jan. 28, an arrest warrant was issued. After Stoner was declared a federal fugitive last week for crossing state lines to avoid prosecution, the FBI joined the search.
Four days before his court date, Stoner rose late, breakfasted and disappeared in his blue Lincoln, according to Jerry Ray, the brother of the convicted assassin of Martin Luther King Jr. and the man who serves as caretaker at States Rights headquarters.
"With all the admirers on his Stoner's mailing list, he could stay hidden for years," says one Alabama investigator. Stoner's racist appeal drew 71,000 votes, about 9 percent of the ballots cast, when he ran for lieutenant governor of Georgia in 1974.